In a process resembling the aftermath of Christmas, I’ve begun putting my house (literal and figurative) back in order. The immediate business of death and all the posthumous ritual is over. Thank you notes have been written and mailed. Lists are being made, both on paper and in my head, of people left to call, services to cancel, tasks to complete. My son and his family went back to their home in Dallas yesterday, and I spent the afternoon putting all Connor’s toys away, doing laundry, and taking the first steps toward the “new normal” life that awaits me, the life without my mother figuring prominently in it.
“I wonder what will happen to you when I'm gone?” my four-year old grandson asked me the other day. Was he concerned that I too would die? After all, his great-grandmother did, even though he talked to her on the phone several times in the weeks just before she went into the hospital and then "went to heaven."
Or did he simply wonder, as I do, how I would fill the hours ahead of me, so many of which have always been spent either talking to, thinking about, or spending time with my mother.
I gave Connor the pat answer I give most people. “I’ll be fine,” I reassured him. “I will miss you, but I’ll start planning a trip when I can come visit you in a couple of months."
“Maybe in June you can come?” he asked, right now very interested in calendars and days of the week. “On a Monday, you can come.”
“Sounds good to me,” I agreed, and we moved on to the next topic of conversation, probably which Berenstain Bears book to read next.
I kept giving my mother some version of that answer too, in the weeks leading up to her death. She often said, “I’m not afraid to die, but I hate to leave you,” a statement I interpreted to mean she was worried that I would make myself sick with grieving her loss.
“I will be alright,” I kept telling her, even though I knew I wouldn’t, at least not for a long while. She would look at me with her startling beautiful blue eyes that never lost their stunning clarity of vision. I could hear the words she often said when she knew I was trying to pull a fast one. “You’re lying,” she would remark with an unusual touch of sarcasm and a soft chuckle.
Lately I’ve begun to wonder if part of her dread of leaving me was a form of grief of her own, her fear of losing touch with me, of no longer being able to know what I was doing with my days, my years, my life in general. Maybe she was asking herself the same question Connor had asked me: “I wonder what will happen to you when I’m gone?"
I wish I had a better answer for both of them. I know it’s early days, know I’ve just begun my long walk through the valley of the shadow of death and all its attendant feelings and upheavals. Right now I am alternately stunned with disbelief, gripped with fear, panicked by loneliness, and overwhelmed by the multitude of tasks ahead.
Much has been written about the “stages” of grief, as if this process were an orderly progression of thoughts and feelings that could be completed and ticked off like the checklists I’ve been creating in my planner. But I saw a graphic illustration of the Grief Adjustment Process the other day on Facebook that seems much closer to the kind of experience I’m having. Instead of a neat U-curve with each step in graduated equal increments, the “real” experience looks more like a crazy jumbled up scribble of black ink scratched angrily into the belly of that curve. One minute I’m going about my normal routine, drinking coffee, walking the dogs, making a meal. The next I’m clutching my gut, nauseous and desperate for a chance to hear my mother’s voice. I’m sobbing into her favorite pillow, the flabby old feather pillow she slept on for years that cradled her head in the hospice when she died. Or I’m throwing a book against the wall, slamming my fist over and over on the counter top, shouting every vile word I can think of.
“The reality is, you will grieve forever,” writes Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, well known researcher and expert on death and dying. “You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same again. Nor should you be the same, nor should you want to be."
So if I’m not to be the same again, now I'm wondering too - what will happen to me? What transformation will this critical loss make in my being, and in my life?
Asking myself the question gives me a modicum of hope, a tiny sensation of something to look forward to. Because already I feel different. Lodged beneath the sadness and vulnerability, like the hyacinth and daffodil bulbs still sleeping in my garden, I think there is a new strength and wisdom simply waiting for the right time to flower. I’m choosing to believe that the end result of those things will be positive: Maybe I’ll write another book. Maybe I’ll fine a totally new creative outlet. Maybe I’ll get a new car (that convertible Mustang I’ve always dreamed about?). Maybe I’ll move to Florida. Just the word “maybe” holds the possibility of hope for positive outcomes.
There’s a song that runs through my head every so often these dark days. “Show me something good...” the lyrics go. Intellectually, I know my mother wanted nothing but Good for me and my life. Somewhere in the midst of all that dark scribbling on the Grief Adjustment Chart, there are tiny pinpricks of white space where something good resides.
I wonder what will happen to me when I find them?